How I gently helped my baby learn to self-settle (well nearly)

Little T wasn’t the best sleeper. In fact, he was bloody awful. His first year he nearly broke me. I thought that the 7 years I spent working very erratic shifts including regular night shifts would prepare me for the inevitable sleepless nights that accompany motherhood. I was wrong. I’ve never known anything quite like the all-encompassing fog that is the sleep deprivation of having a baby who won’t sleep longer than 2 hours straight.

How I gently taught my baby to self-settleThe first couple of months were tough, but pretty much what I expected. His sleep seemed to be gradually getting better and he was going longer stretches at night. Then at 3 1/2 months the dreaded 4 month sleep regression hit. This then blended seamlessly with the 9 month sleep regression.

Aged 5 months T was at his worst, waking every 45 minutes. All night. Every night. We survived by co-sleeping; I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it but it was either that or slowly lose my marbles (I was hallucinating due to tiredness some days). So I made a co-sleeper cot and breastfed him to sleep every time.

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At 8 months T had improved slightly but was still waking every 2 hours. I was starting to get slightly panicky as the end of my maternity leave was fast approaching. I could barely string two sentences together some days, let alone work 10 hour days in a stressful job that required me to actually use my brain for something more taxing than ‘the wheels on the bus.’

So we tried sleep training. I couldn’t face controlled crying so we tried ‘pick up put down.’ The side went back on his cot and it was moved to his own room. 10 days of heartbreaking screams every bedtime later we conceded defeat and his cot came back in our room (not as a co-sleeper any more though) and he went back to boobying or rocking him to sleep for every nap and bedtime.

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Somehow I survived the first couple of months back at work. Then in the week before his 1st birthday something clicked. Out of the blue he went from waking up every 2 hours to waking twice a night, just like that. I believe this was when T learnt how to self-settle.

6 tips for gently helping your baby learn to self-settle:

Self-settling. Aah, those magic words. The panacea for all sleep problems. Or not. The promise of self-settling has made sleep ‘experts’ a lot of money from desperate sleep-deprived parents.

The theory is that if your baby is able to settle down and go to sleep by themselves they will do the same when they wake in the night. Incidentally, no one ‘sleeps through,’ we all wake up briefly at the end of each sleep cycle, just we are able to roll over, fluff the pillow and go back to sleep. We don’t remember these brief wake ups unless something like needing a wee or a strange sound causes us to wake up fully.

My little T went from 5 wake ups per night to a much more manageable 2 without me doing anything differently. However, once he was ready to self-settle, he now, at 15 months old, goes off to sleep peacefully every night simply with a cuddle and usually doesn’t need any more input from me until 4/5am when it’s a quick cuddle or a booby then back to sleep until we get up at 6/7am.

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1. Sleeping like a baby.

Firstly accept that babies will ‘sleep like babies.’ That is, wake up regularly. Some babies grow out of this sooner than others, but like other milestones, they reach it in their own time. You will find your own ways of coping but make sure you accept all help that is offered, catch up on sleep, or just chill out and have a bath. Some days you will feel like utter sh*te, some days you will cope better. Be kind to yourself. Remember the mantra of motherhood, ‘This too shall pass;’ as the mummy of a non-sleeper I can verify that it doesn’t last forever (even if it feels like it at the time!)

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2. Keep calm and co-sleep.

Somewhat controversial, and not for everybody, this is what helped me survive those terrible months of broken sleep. If, like me, you’re not comfortable having your baby sleep in bed with you due to the higher risk of SIDS, consider making a co-sleeper cot, or buying one. And always follow the safe sleep guidelines (I strongly recommend reading these in full on The Lullaby Trust‘s website):

  • Never share a bed with your baby if you or your partner smoke (even if you don’t smoke in the bedroom), have drunk alcohol or taken drugs that will make you more drowsy.
  • Bedsharing is particularly dangerous if your baby was born before 37 weeks or had a low birth weight (less than 2.5kg or 5 1/2 lbs).
  • Do not use pillows or duvets for your baby and keep them away from adult bedding to avoid them overheating or their head being covered by loose bedding. (Another reason I preferred the co-sleeper cot to fully co-sleeping)
  • Make sure your baby cannot fall out of bed or get trapped between the bed and a wall.
  • Never leave your baby unattended in an adult bed (not even for a second- that will be the moment they learn to roll. Fact.)
  • Always put your baby to sleep on their back.

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3. Bedtime routine.

It doesn’t matter what’s in your bedtime routine, just as long as you do the same every night. Some things we do are:

  • Start to wind down before taking him upstairs. So no exciting, running around play right before bed. It’s also a good idea to avoid TV/screen time just before bed as the blue light from TVs suppresses the production of melatonin and will keep your baby awake.
  • White noise. We use an app on an old phone, but a radio tuned to static would work too. White noise is soothing to babies as it mimics the sound they hear in the womb. I personally don’t rate Ewan the Dream Sheep and others like it as the sound cuts off after a certain amount of time and I found T would wake up when the sound stopped. We have white noise playing all night, which I actually find helps us to sleep better too!
  • Lullabies. When he hears ‘you are my sunshine’ he knows it’s time to start winding down for bed.
  • Bedtime story. This is a lovely way for Daddy to get involved if your little one is breastfed. We’ve read T a bedtime story every night since he was 3 months old. We have a small selection of books that are specifically for bedtime and he really loves them! He gets so excited when he sees them and seems to really enjoy the familiarity of them, while also spotting new things all the time.
  • Milk. This is so comforting for babies whether breast or bottle fed and I’m sure is part of every baby’s bedtime routine.

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4. Timing is everything.

I believe that babies cannot be taught to gently self-settle before they are ready. They can be sleep-trained, yes, but it will involved crying. If you’re not up for that, you will have to wait until your baby is ready to do it themselves. Soz.

You can give them a gentle nudge if they are nearly there, but if it’s too soon they just won’t be able to do it. You can stand a baby up as much as you like but they will not walk until they are ready. It’s the same with sleep. If you try to encourage them to self-settle before they are ready it won’t work, so just go back to whatever you were doing before and know they will get there in their own time- I don’t know many adults who need their Mummy to come round each night and rock them to sleep.

5. Night weaning.

Babies need to feed in the night. Despite what you might have been told, it is normal for babies to need to feed in the night past 6 months, even up to a year or more. If you try to night wean before they are ready to give up night feeds it will not help them sleep; but it will remove a tool you have to get them back to sleep quickly and easily.

Once T was ready to give up night feeds, ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ worked really well for me when he was around 12-13 months as he didn’t actually always want or need a feed and would settle quicker with a cuddle than with a feed.

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6. Helping baby to self-settle.

I used to breastfeed T to sleep when he was tiny. Using the co-sleeper cot, this worked for us. As he got older, I began feeding him until drowsy then rocking him to sleep. This gradually progressed to rocking him until he was drowsy then putting him in the cot and patting his bum and shushing him until he fell asleep. But I could never progress to being able to put him in the cot awake, he would be happy for a bit but then start crying and reaching his arms up for me.

When he woke in the night, I was boobying him back to sleep. Just after his first birthday when he seemed to have learnt to self-settle, I decided to try gently night weaning him. We did ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse,’ and to my surprise I found that he sometimes would only need a cuddle to go back to sleep. Now I knew he could go back to sleep in the night without rocking or boob I decided it was time to teach him to fall asleep in the evening by himself. The co-sleeper cot returned at 14 months and our bedtime routine ended with him going into the co-sleeper cot with me laying next to him on the bed with my eyes closed.

The first night it took nearly 2 hours. He protested slightly but didn’t get upset. He walked around, sang to himself, threw his teddies out of the cot. Then he started to lie down intermittently, gave me cuddles and kisses (and headbutted/bit/pinched me), and then, to my amazement, he finally closed his eyes and went to sleep! The next night took 45 minutes. It now normally takes 20-30 minutes. I know it’s not quite self-settling as I stay with him, but I know he’ll get there in his own time. And I quite enjoy our evening cuddles!

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Waiting it out

So for us it was a case of ‘waiting it out’ rather than ‘crying it out’ that helped T sleep better. They are babies for such a short time, I wish I hadn’t tried to force him to self-settle before he was ready and instead tried to find ways of coping better with his lack of sleep. Oh well, the first baby is just for practice, right? I just couldn’t imagine his sleep was going to improve without doing something drastic. Turns out he got better at sleeping as he got older, it just took him a bit longer than I would have liked.

If you want to learn more about gentle sleep tips, Elizabeth Pantley’s ‘No-Cry Sleep Solution’ and ‘No-Cry Nap Solution’ (affiliate links) make for interesting reading. While they didn’t magically make T sleep through, they certainly gave me some ideas on helping him sleep better. The tables where she gives guidelines on how long babies can generally be awake for at different ages and how much sleep they need were useful too (although all babies are different, obviously). T is a bloody nightmare to get to sleep if he’s overtired so I find it’s important to put him down for his naps and bedtime when he first shows signs of tiredness and before he gets overtired.

What about you? How did you teach your baby to self-settle? Any tips for sleep-deprived parents out there? I’d love to hear your opinions.

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14 thoughts on “How I gently helped my baby learn to self-settle (well nearly)

  1. Rosie Love

    I think I needed to read this this morning. My daughter is 9 months old and seems to be having a big sleep change again. I thought the exact same thing as you regarding erratic shifts and sleep deprivation but it affects me so differently, I really struggle with it. Some nights (like last night) I find myself worrying that I’m not doing this sleep thing right but you reminded me that actually she will sort this on her own.

    My daughter can never be made to do anything she’s not ready for. I think she still woke for feeds until she was ateast 6 months old and she will sti wake now if she’s poorly. Other times if she wakes (as she seems to be now) she needs to be cuddled/rocked to sleep or until she is drowsy.

    Singing to my daughter has been an absolute life saver! Someone suggested this and I tried when she was newborn and it did f**k all! So many times I nearly gave up but then all of a sudden something clicked and now when I sing to her she smiles and relaxes instantly and it makes me feel I’m a good mum 🙂

    Keeping my fingers crossed her sleep gets some sort of pattern soon! Feel like I’m going crazy ha!
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    • Helen Post author

      I know, it’s so different to working nights, isn’t it? Now when people without children tell me they’re tired, I just think, ‘you don’t know the meaning of the word’ ha!

      Alice will get there. I don’t think there’s any ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to helping your baby sleep, just whatever works for your family and gets you through. A few months ago I just couldn’t see how T’s sleep would ever improve, but he just figured it out one day. Also I seem to remember that at about 9 months they go through a massive developmental leap and need more comfort for a while.

      I love that she relaxes and smiles when you start singing- that’s adorable!

      Really hope things start to improve soon for you. Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture, for good reason- it truly is awful. Xx
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  2. Rosie Love

    I think the same thing when people say they are tired ha! And people say to me ‘you’re used to doing nights it’s not that different is it?’ And I look at then like this —-> o_O

    Thank you for the reassurance, much appreciated. Good to know about the 9 month thing might explain a lot 🙂
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  3. Tinuke

    Oh my, I remember these days so well. My daughter was attached to the boob and would only fall asleep whilst I fed, only to wake up within hours to feed again.

    I wasn’t able to get my daughter to self settle as a baby, so I found your advise very helpful. If I ever have baby number two I’ll be sure to use it.
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  4. Olivia

    tonight whilst sat in my 9 month and 3 week old son’s cot rubbing his back for the fortieth minute I desperately googled on my phone ‘will my baby ever learn to self settle?!’
    your article came up, and I’m so glad I found it tonight.
    my son has NEVER slept longer than two hours, he wakes hourly from bedtime until midnight-ish. still has a night feed.
    I have everyone from friends to the health visitor telling me to drop the night feeds, sleep train, and even though I go back to work in a month and am seriously sleep deprived, I don’t want to do either of those things because they feel wrong.
    It’s so reassuring to know that others are going through it, and that its okay to co-sleep / Rock / feed my baby to sleep still because it’s what works and gets us through the night without tears!!
    definitely going to ‘wait it out’ and hopefully my little man will reach the same point your baby did.
    Thanks for sharing this, it’s been the boost I needed!

    Xxxx

    Reply
    • Helen Post author

      Aww, thank you so much for the lovely comment! I’m so pleased I was able to help you tonight. A few short months ago I was in exactly same situation. The amount of times I took to google desperately looking for answers! Sleep deprivation is the most awful thing and it feels like it will never end. But it will. He will get there.

      You need to do what’s right for your family and your baby. Don’t be pressured into doing something because of what you’re told your son ‘should’ be doing. He hasn’t read the books, he doesn’t know he’s not ‘supposed’ to need a night feed any more. Do whatever it takes so that you can all get as much sleep as possible. It’s really tough going back to work when they’re not sleeping: I coped by having lie ins at the weekend and working part time.

      At some point he will start sleeping better. You’re doing a great job xx

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      • huond dan hack coins pokemon

        I agree with the (17) points elicited above. I’m a writing teacher and these are going to be important points to keep in mind. I am writing my first book. My only question is how many words should a children’s book manuscript be! Surely we’re not talking 100,000 words!Any responses? Suggestions as to the word count/length of a book for children? Here we’re also talking about a book for children anywhere from 6 to 15.

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  5. NewMummyBlog

    These are great ideas, my little one is very sporadic with her sleep patterns, she used to sleep through, then after the 4 month sleep regression she started waking a couple of times, and now at 7 months I’m often up 4 times a night. We tried a formula bottle at 10pm last night (instead of me feeding her) and she slept til 4am!!! So tonight will tell if she was just so hungry 🙁 It sounds like you’ve climbed mountains to get to where you are, well done. The 4 month sleep regression has a lot to answer for from the sounds of it!
    I’m going to read the No Cry Sleep Solution, and Nap Solution, thank you for the suggestion x
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    • Helen Post author

      Aah, I really hope the bottle of formula works for you again tonight and you all get some sleep. The 4 month sleep regression is so cruel, you feel like things are going so well, them BAM! no more sleep. I think the books are definitely worth a read, I really like her way of parenting- I’ve also bought the No Cry Discipline Solution which is making for interesting reading too!

      Reply
  6. Another Bun

    Great article – BUT – safe cosleeping doesn’t increase the risk of SIDS, it actually decreases it. The studies that say that more deaths occurred when babies slept with their parents included deaths caused by parents smothering their children when sleeping on sofas (which is a MASSIVE no no) Cosleeping (or using a cosleeping crib) is awesome when done safely 🙂
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    • Helen Post author

      Thanks for your comment! It’s such a complex issue, isn’t it? I think there needs to be more research into SIDS and safe co-sleeping as I don’t believe there have been any studies comparing safe co-sleeping with sleeping in a cot.

      My understanding is that a lot of SIDS deaths when co-sleeping are associated with suffocation/strangulation or, like you say, unsafe situations such as on a sofa. So therefore, following safety guidelines when co-sleeping should, in theory, mean it is safer than accidentally co-sleeping or by falling asleep in a chair because you’re feeding the baby in a chair rather than risk co-sleeping(!).

      The guidelines recommend sharing a room with your baby as the CO2 exhaled by the mother is thought to stimulate baby’s breathing. Also the closeness of co-sleeping facilitates breastfeeding (which reduces SIDS risk). Countries where co-sleeping is the norm also have lower SIDS rates than Western societies that favour crib-sleeping. All of this, to me, suggests that safe co-sleeping would indeed reduce SIDS risk.

      However, the guidelines also recommend avoiding co-sleeping when you’re more likely to sleep more deeply. This could be due to alcohol, drugs, or extreme tiredness. Having a baby who slept terribly for months on end obviously made me extremely tired! So for me personally, I felt uncomfortable co-sleeping, but the co-sleeper cot was a life-saver! If/when baby number 2 arrives, I would co-sleep using a co-sleeper cot from birth.

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